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The Bait-And-Switch Behind National Signing Day

National Letters of Intent lock college athletes into schools while allowing the assistant coaches who recruited them to bolt for better opportunities. Is that fair?
February 12, 2016, 4:14pm
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The storyline when Alabama, who already has some of the best coaches in the country, added ace recruiter Derrick Ansley from Kentucky was that the rich got richer.

But perhaps the timing of the hire was more important.

Ansley left Kentucky just four days after National Signing Day after helping the Wildcats land the No. 34-ranked class in the nation, including three cornerbacks whom he would have specifically coached.

Read More: National Signing Day Is About Student-Athletes-Until It's Not

College football recruiting is a years-long process, with relationships forming over time. Often, the relationship between athletes and assistants is more important than the relationship between athletes and head coaches. In fact, an ESPN survey of recruits found that assistant coaches are the most important factor in bringing athletes to campus. Without Ansley, Kentucky's class could be much different.

But now, the coach who very well could have been the reason some of Kentucky's incoming players chose to sign there is gone. And that illustrates an uncomfortable truth about the recruiting process: there's a long history of assistant coaches leaving schools right after they sign the recruiting classes they want—which is perfectly good if you're a coach climbing the career ladder, but less ideal if you're a player who feels bait-and-switched.

It's all smiles and manic laughs until the coach who recruited you bolts for a better opportunity. —Photo by Kimberly P. Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Understand, this is not an indictment of Ansley or Kentucky. Neither created the system, and both are playing by the rules. But are the rules fair to incoming players?

National Signing Day is generally seen as a celebration, but really, it's the day the NCAA and its schools all but force players to sign binding documents to their schools. Athletes can still be on the team, and also have the opportunity to leave if a coach leaves, if they don't sign their letters of intent (NLIs).

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Once they sign, however, they're bound to the school no matter what.

That's why schools exercise their power to make sure players sign. And since most recruits are seemingly dispensable, only the top few could get away with not signing. If a middling recruit wouldn't commit to being on the team regardless of coaching changes, coaches will get rid of them and find someone else.

Schools don't hide this fact. Here's a provision from the standard NLI form:

I understand I have signed this NLI with the institution and not for a particular sport or coach. If a coach leaves the institution or the sports program (e.g., not retained, resigns), I remain bound by the provisions of this NLI. I understand it is not uncommon for a coach to leave his or her coaching position.

That provision allows schools to absolve themselves of all responsibility for coaches who deceive recruits—promising they'll be around, or failing to mention that they are about to jump ship—and it's one of the reasons we see so many assistants switch jobs soon after players have inked their NLIs. Here are all the moves affecting power conference schools that have happened since signing day:

●Derrick Ansley left Kentucky for Alabama

●Jim Turner left Cincinnati for Texas A&M

●Diron Reynolds left Oklahoma for Stanford

●Mark Hagen left Texas A&M for Indiana

●Daronte Jones left Wisconsin for the Miami Dolphins

●Larry McDaniel left Indiana

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●Randy Hart retired at Stanford

●Hank Hughes was let go at Nebraska

●Jemal Singleton left Arkansas for the Indianapolis Colts

Again: there's no shame in taking a new job to advance your career, but there is shame in a system that doesn't allow players the same options.

While many players know the inevitable — that this is a business masqueraded as an educational experience — others have spoken out about the cruelty of the system.

Last year, star Detroit running back Mike Weber picked Ohio State over hometown Michigan, the Buckeyes' bitter archrival, on signing day, after a long, agonizing process. The very next day, Weber's top recruiter at Ohio State, Stan Drayton, left for the Chicago Bears. Weber was hurt.

"It was really upsetting. It just felt like I wasn't satisfied," Weber told Northeast Ohio Media Group. "It just felt like I couldn't trust anything or anybody. I had to realize that this is a business, a part of the game."

It's a business, which is why they make you sign a contract. —Photo by Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

What Weber learned the hard way is that the NCAA system is built on distrust. Schools don't trust each other, so they collude not to pay athletes. They don't trust each other in recruiting, so they force players to sign binding contracts. They don't need trust to sign recruits, so they exercise their power instead.

It's perhaps the least fair part of an extremely unfair system—a trick that schools have no incentive to change.